When I was nineteen I decided to go to Greece for a holiday with my best friend from Cardiff, John. We have known each other since we were five and went all through school together. We still keep in touch now. That’s one of the drawbacks of living abroad; you don’t have friends with whom you share so many memories, and that closeness is very important.
I remember we went to Greece for four weeks, and travelled by bus from London to Athens which took four days each way, with a stay in a hotel on the second night, which gave us the opportunity to have a good night’s sleep and freshen up a bit. I don’t think low cost airlines like Ryan Air and Easyjet existed in those days. The year was 1976. We planned to see Athens and then visit some of the islands, and accommodation was a small, but reliable tent which we took with us. I packed the usual basic things, plus a book which I intended to read while relaxing on the beaches. If my memory serves me well, which certainly isn’t a guarantee anymore, the cover of the book was green and the author was a British explorer named John Ridgeway. If the cover of the book wasn’t green and the author was in fact someone else, don’t worry, it will in no way affect your enjoyment of this blog post, so please read on.
In Athens we stayed at a camp site on the outskirts of the city, a beautiful site shaded by tall pine trees. On one of the first days in the centre, we stopped at a bar to have a beer to quench our thirst and entered what we thought was a charming, and not overly expensive bar. We ordered two beers, and with the two beers came two young, scantily clad girls with big breasts nearly falling out of their blouses who came and sat with us. Feeling something was not quite right we downed the beers as quickly as possible and asked for the bill. When John saw the bill, he whispered, “Let’s get out of here quick,” and so, on the count of three, we did a runner. We were on the first floor, so we hurtled down the stairs, followed by this burly guy, who chased us for a few blocks down the streets, as we dodged the oncoming pedestrians who were probably wondering what the hell was going on. After about five minutes of running we felt safe and we had a rest in the shade. Now that’s what I call an adrenaline boost, scary, but funny afterwards. Who knows what would have happened if we had been caught, maybe I would still be in some Greek prison, or still cleaning dishes to pay for the bill!!
On the second night we discovered that right next to our campsite, on a neighbouring piece of land the Athens wine festival was being held. We had to pay an extremely economical entrance fee, and in return we were given a glass which could be refilled free of charge for the entire evening. What an excellent choice that campsite was in retrospect. There were different types of wine from the various wine producing regions of Greece, and needless to say, I didn’t start reading my book while we were in Athens.
After Athens, we headed for the islands, first to Paros, and then Naxos, Santorini and finally Crete, before returning to Athens and catching the slow bus back to London. In those days the Greek islands were not very developed, and we camped on the beaches and cooked over a small camping stove we took with us. During the time we spent on the islands I managed to read the green book, and I have to tell you that this small, possibly green covered book changed the course of my life. The book was about four British explorers who canoed down the River Amazon, from its source in Peru to the mouth which subsequently flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The book enthralled me, and I decided I wanted to travel round South America. At the time I didn’t know how this was going to happen, I didn't know anyone in South America, and I didn't have the financial resources to do so, however, for the next few years I kept the thought churning over in the back of my mind.
A few years later I was offered a job with a firm of Land Surveyors based in Croydon, South London, and I accepted the position of junior land surveyor. They sent me to various parts of Britain and different areas of London on jobs which lasted from just a few days to months. The travelling meant it was hard to have an organised social life as I was never sure where I was going to be, however, I enjoyed the diversity of the job immensely. One day they asked me if I was interested in going to Iraq to work on an upcoming project they had in the pipeline. I didn’t have to think twice, and without hesitation said yes! I waited for the contract to be signed and less than a month later I was on my way to Baghdad. On that first trip I stayed just five weeks, staying at the Abu Nawas Hotel in central Baghdad not far from the banks of the river Tigris, and had such a marvellous time I couldn’t wait to go again. Sometimes I wonder how many of the people I met while I was there are still alive, bearing in mind the horrific destruction the country has suffered in recent years. Baghdad was such a beautiful city when I was there. I thoroughly enjoyed every day I spent in that country and met some wonderful people.
Three months before that first trip I was invited to a party at a hotel in London, and there I met a girl from Medellin, Colombia. We went out together up until my departure for Baghdad on that first trip, and even though on my return she had returned to Colombia, we kept in touch and she later became my wife.
I went on three more trips to Iraq, working in different places and for longer periods. The last trip I was there for almost six months. The company paid me ninety percent extra salary for working abroad plus two pounds a day for drinks so we didn’t dehydrate in the desert. We never spent the two pounds they gave us each day because we always got receipts for the food and drinks we bought which they paid in retrospect. They also paid all other expenses too, with the exception of personal items such as presents or souvenirs. This meant that in the summer of 1980, I had saved enough money to take a sabbatical, and hence travelled to Colombia to initially stay with my future wife and her family before setting off on my own adventure. I ended up travelling round South America for a total of thirteen months and visited Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil.
And now, as you know I live in Colombia.
The moral of this story is: if you want to travel round South America, read the green book, it has magical powers.